Two Recipes: First, The Perfect Fire–and Then, Braised Pork Tacos with Cumin, Cinnamon and Smoked Pasilla Chiles

True bliss: A cheerful fire and a plate of braised pork tacos, spiced with cinnamon and chiles, served with black beans and tart tomatillo salsa. Winter contentment, at its best.

True bliss: A cheerful fire and a plate of braised pork tacos, spiced with cinnamon and chiles, served with black beans and tart tomatillo salsa. Winter contentment, at its best.

The other day Sarah exclaimed, “Oh my, you have a real fire!” She took off her coat and went to warm her hands in front of the dancing flames.

We’ve been using the fireplace a lot lately, especially in the morning. There’s nothing B likes better than that first cheerful blaze, shooting up from the logs, hissing and popping, sending its heat radiating across the old Sarouk, past the French doors and the dog’s bowls, to the breakfast table.

His smoked salmon wouldn’t be the same without the warmth of the fire eddying around his ankles.

But the eco-police are after us. In “The Love Affair With the Fireplace Cools,” (The New York Times, January 19, 2011, page D1), Christina S. N. Lewis writes that, in green circles, fireplaces have acquired a “social stigma…joining the ranks of bottled water and big houses.” Fire’s sins are many: pollution, indoors and out, chronic respiratory ailments, and deforestation of hardwoods. In Palo Alto and other California towns, builders are banned from installing fireplaces or wood burning stoves in new construction.

And yet…There’s no way we’re giving up our winter fires. For one thing, until recently we were mostly burning our own hickory. A few summers ago a freakish wind blasted like a freight train into the woods behind us. I heard an earsplitting crack and when I ran to the window, a 40-foot hickory was toppling into the garden next door. The upside was a huge pile of neatly sawn logs that lasted for several winters.

But even though we now have to “import” seasoned wood—mostly culled from fallen limbs and lightning-struck trees—fires are simply too pleasurable to forswear for the souless joys of the electric log. The crackling of dry twigs as they catch fire, the orange gold flames flickering across the logs, leaping ever higher as the fire gets hotter, the warmth that spreads slowly through the room, even the faint smell of smoke when a wisp escapes from the chimney—all these are sensuous pleasures that we’re loathe to abandon.

There are different types of fires, of course. In Poser: My Life in 23 Yoga Poses, Claire Dederer writes about “shoulder season” fires in Seattle: “There was something wonderfully profligate about an autumn fire when you didn’t quite need it.” And though Dederer believes that winter fires are “pedestrian,” I don’t feel that the holidays have quite begun until the mantel is decorated—this year it was an enchanted forest with an iridescent peacock perched over mossy branches and silvery toadstools—and a cheerful fire is burning below.

A few more come to mind: Early morning doom-dispelling-fires when the skies are cold and gray; after sundown keep-the-demons-at-bay-fires; and late night naughty fires involving a bottle of Maker’s Mark and a few cushions. This leads to nesting fires. The luminous bedroom of our apartment in New York—the walls, the rug, even our sheets were snowy white—had the unbelievable luxury of a working fireplace. I have never felt such contentment as I did when nestling with drowsy babies in our big bed, watching the flames flicker on the hearth across the darkened room.

To enjoy these pleasures, it is of course necessary to know how to build a proper fire. In our house B is the fire builder—I don’t even try—so I will cede the floor to him.

Here is his recipe for perfection. It’s taken from his longer essay, “Bonfire of My Vanities,” which I will post next time in its entirety:

“To make a fire then, you want a stack of wood that’s no longer green, hopefully sitting in the back yard or shed for a year. If outside, cover it with a tarp, so that the rains can’t reach it, and it is truly dry when you set to fire-making. The key is kindling. If you love trees and greenery, you can gather bark and twigs and falling branches, putting the potpourri in a bucket that will sit under the same tarpaulin that covers your pile of logs. Some will buy some fatwood as a starter: It is fun and creates a little bit of action, but it is rather unnecessary.

“Finally, you need a good pile of newspapers. We favor The New York Times (and we are asking for a commission for this free advertisement). It burns well and does not use the slick papers which may line your chimney with excrescences….What you do is to ball up tightly one sheet and then loosely wrap another sheet around the hard ball. This means the assemblage will burn for a while in your fireplace.

“First place several of the loose paper assemblages between the andirons in your fireplace. Atop this put mounds of kindling. Then put exactly one log to the front of your andirons, using it to anchor in the paper and the kindling. Once done, light a swatch of paper and use it to heat the air well above the andirons towards the chimney. This last move will make sure smoke from the fire goes up your chimney instead of flowing into your open room. At this point you are ready to light the paper balls and watch the kindling burst into flame and torch up the fireplace.

“In a few minutes throw a few more sticks of kindling on the fireplace, so that it reaches full heat. In perhaps 10 minutes you can put a log or two more on your roaring fire.

“If it all does not work out well, consult your mother-in-law. Most likely she either built the fires or supervised minions (family members) at her own homestead years ago.”


To continue: I almost forgot eating-by-the-hearth fires. Such a fire cannot be too fierce, or too timid. No, what you want is a pleasant, cheerful fire made of well-seasoned wood, logs with some heft, that snap and pop softly as they burn. A fire that emits a merry glow and an even, gentle heat.

This fire begs for hearty, well-spiced food—a stew, a tagine, a braise—slow-cooked in a heavy cast iron pot for a few hours, so that its succulent fragrance circulates through the house.

These braised pork tacos are such a dish. Cooking the meat is a relaxed affair—the only thing you need to remember is to start the night before, so the pork shoulder gets a leisurely marinade in a garlicky spice paste. The next day, sauté some onions, put the pork in an ovenproof pot, add a stick of cinnamon and a handful of dried chiles, pour in some beer and beef broth, and let it simmer in the oven while you fold laundry or call your best friend in Chicago to get the scoop on her daughter’s loft wedding.

A few thoughts on ingredients: While cleaning the pantry, I ran across a jar of smoked pasilla chiles that I ferried back from Oaxaca, um, a few years ago. Upon opening the jar, I was enveloped in a smoky fruity aroma so redolent of the Mercado de Abastos that I was instantly transported to the market stall of Eliseo Hernandez and his wondrous array of dried chiles.

I haven’t found a U.S. source for smoked pasillas, but you could certainly subsitute dried ancho peppers or ordinary pasillas, which are the dried form of the chilaca chile. For this recipe stick with chiles that are low on the Scoville scale—both anchos and pasillas clock in at 1,000 to 2,000 units of “hotness”—so that you don’t scorch your palate. Chipotles would be too hot, so think about using a smoked salt to season the dish if you’d like the pork to have a whiff of the woodfire.

Tortillas: If you can swing it, serve the pork rolled up in thin corn tortillas. And no, even I wouldn’t dream of making them myself. We get our tortillas from Andre, the chef at Tonali in Durham, possibly the best Mexican restaurant north of the border. His wife makes them right there in the kitchen, and these small delights–no more than 4 to 5 inches in diameter–are soft and supple, with the delicate, slightly earthy flavor of truly fresh corn tortillas.

The tacos are delicious with black beans and tart tomatillo salsa: Both recipes can be found right here on SpiceLines (see below). Both can simmer slowly on the stove while the pork is braising in the oven. The tomatillo salsa is especially important: It lifts the rich, spice-infused pork with its tart, brightly acidic flavor – the tacos wouldn’t be as good without it.

It’s Tuesday, plenty of time to build a fire and dream of a slow meal by the fireside.

True contentment.

Braised Pork Tacos with Cumin, Cinnamon and Smoked Pasilla Chiles

Serves 6 or more

Ingredients for the tacos:

3-1/2 pounds boneless pork shoulder
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 head garlic, cloves separated and peeled
1 tablespoon sea salt
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 teaspoon allspice, ground
1 tablespoon dried oregano
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
A 5-inch stick Ceylon cinnamon, or a 3-inch stick cassia
2 to 3 dried pasilla chiles, smoked if possible (otherwise use plain dried pasilla or ancho chiles), stems removed
1 cup packaged or canned beef broth
1 cup Mexican beer (I used Tecate)

Ingredients for the garnish:

1 bunch mild radishes, finely chopped
4 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped
½ cup white onion, finely slivered

Other ingredients:

2 dozen small corn tortillas, freshly made if possible
Tomatillo Salsa
Black Beans with Smoky Bacon, Green Pepper and Garlic


1. The day before you want to serve the tacos, untie the pork shoulder, assuming it has been bound up with string, and cut it into large (5-inch) chunks. Using a sharp knife, cut away any exposed layers of fat.
2. In a mortar and pestle, smash cumin seeds gently to release their fragrance. Remove and set aside. Add the garlic and salt to the mortar, and smash with the pestle until they form a soft paste. Add the bruised cumin seeds coriander, paprika, allspice, and oregano to the mixture and combine. Add 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and mix well to form an oily paste.
3. Prick the pork all over with the tip of a sharp knife. Rub the spice paste into the meat, working it into the slits. Place in a large dish and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight.
4. The next day, set the oven to 400 degrees. Remove the pork from the refrigerator.
5. In a large enameled cast iron casserole (Le Creuset or Staub would be ideal) with a heatproof cover, sauté the chopped onion in 3 tablespoons of olive oil for 2 minutes over medium heat. Add the cinnamon and the pasilla (or other) chiles and continue to sauté until the cinnamon has released its fragrance, the onions are translucent and the chiles have become soft and pliable.
6. Add the pork to the pot in one layer, along with any spice paste that remains in the dish. Add the beer and beef broth. The liquid should come about 2/3 of the way up the side of the meat, so add more of each if needed.
7. Over high heat, bring the contents of the pot briefly to a boil. Turn off the heat, cover and place in the oven. Braise for 2-1/2 to 3 hours, turning the pork chunks occasionally, until the meat is very tender and falls apart easily. If there is a lot of liquid in the pot, let the meat simmer uncovered for the last 30 minutes.
8. Remove the pork to a large platter until it is cool enough to handle. Reserve the braising liquid. Tear the meat into shreds and set aside.
9. Place the reserved liquid in a small pot and boil over medium high heat until it has reduced by about half. The liquid should thicken slightly, but still be runny enough to pour.
10. About 20 minutes before serving, wrap the tortillas in groups of 6 in aluminum foil packets and warm them in a 325-degree oven. Put the shredded pork back into the large pot, pour the reduced liquid over it and warm over low heat. At the same time, warm the tomatillo salsa and the black beans. Combine the garnish ingredients—radishes, cilantro, white onion—in a small bowl
11. Just before serving, remove a dozen tortillas from the oven and wrap in a dishtowel, or tortilla holder, to keep them warm. Put the pork, black beans, and tomatillo salsa in separate bowls and bring to the table, along with the mixed garnish.
The idea is for everyone to make his or her own soft tacos. Each person should lay one or 2 tortillas on a plate, and add pork, salsa, black beans and garnish as desired. Roll up the tacos and devour with gusto, preferably by the fire with a glass of cold Mexican beer.

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